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Just finished a stunning book, The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novel by Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant. Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Cookies, on December 7th, 2015.

no_bake_holiday_cookie_cubes

A cookie. A little bar. A little square of goodness. Chocolate, cookie crumbs (you’ll have to read below to learn what types), corn flakes (they are the little light colored horizontal striations you see buried in the cubes), nuts, dried cranberries and speculoos. What, you say? I know, you’ll need to read more about that below.

When I saw the picture of this little gem on Dorie Greenspan’s website, I just knew I needed to try them. The recipe was written up for her column at the Washington Post. What intrigued me were several things: (1) it was a no-bake cookie; (2) it called for 2 things I knew nothing about – Biscoff cookies (where have I been?) and speculoos (another, where have I been?); and (3) it was chocolate (yum). First, though, I had to FIND these elusive ingredients.

biscoff_cookie_package

Going down the aisle at my grocery store I found the Biscoff cookies. Because I rarely buy store-bought cookies, I guess I’ve just never noticed. They’re a butter spice cookie, probably made with dark brown sugar, I’d guess. They’re crispy. The manufacturer says they’re “Europe’s Favorite Cookie with Coffee.” Not remembering how much I needed, I ended up buying 2 packages. I only needed one. But, if I hadn’t found the other elusive ingredient I would have used the 2nd package to make the cookie butter.

speculoos_cookie_butter_trader_joesIn the write-up, Dorie mentioned that Trader Joe’s makes a speculoos cookie butter which is very similar to the Biscoff cookie, in a butter form, and sure enough, they do. Right next to their version of Nutella. In a jar (see photo) and I scooped a spoonful of it up for you to see – it has the same look and texture as peanut butter. It’s jarred, and it says right on it, don’t refrigerate it. Okay, got it. I used most of the jar for the filling of this cookie. Don’t know what I’ll ever use the rest of it for – maybe over the holidays someone will want to spread it on toast. Being me, I had to go look up more about speculoos – from wikipedia: Speculoos is a type of spiced shortcrust biscuit, traditionally baked for consumption on or just before St Nicholas’ feast in the Netherlands, Belgium, and around Christmas in the western and southern parts of Germany (and they make it into a spread, just like Biscoff does).

In my pantry I had corn flakes. I also had ample dried cranberries, and I chose to use almonds in this – you can use any kind of nut you’d like, or use a combination. The recipe calls for just 1/2 cup of nuts. First you make the cookie base. I whizzed up nearly all of one cookie package in the food processor until it was fine crumbs. Melted butter was added, then it was patted into the 9×9 pan – actually it might be an 8×8 pan, which is what Dorie calls for. I do suggest you press the cookie crumb layer firmly – if you don’t it will fall apart when you try to cut it into cubes later.

melting_choc_speculoos_butterThat is put into the freezer to firm up while you make the filling. In a big saucepan you melt butter, the speculoos cookie spread/butter and 12 ounces of chocolate. Dorie prefers a dark chocolate, which is what I used. Milk chocolate can be substituted, though. I used a flame-tamer to do that part because the mixture was very thick (the speculoos particularly – it’s sticky like peanut butter) and I didn’t want it to burn. I let it cool a bit, then added the corn flakes, dried cranberries and almonds. You can also use raisins, dried cherries or chopped up dried apricots instead of the cranberries. You stir all this together until you can’t see any more of the cornflake pieces, then gently scoop it on top of the frozen crumb crust. Press it down firmly all over (I didn’t do that quite enough) so the chocolate layer adheres to the crumbs.

layers_no_bake_cookiesThe mixture is spread out clear to the corners and you do squish it out and down as best you can. Chill several hours, or freeze. I can’t imagine trying to cut this from a frozen state. Getting this block of stuff out of the pan was a bit of challenge – I dipped the 8×8 pan into a pan of hot water for about a minute (being careful to not splash any water into the cookies), then used a narrow metal spatula to free all the edges. It came out easily at that point (Dorie actually recommends blowing a hair dryer all around the bottom and sides of the pan); I righted it, then cut it into cubes. Dorie recommended 7 sliced strips – I was only able to get 6 from my pan, then I carefully cut each of the long slices into cubes, so I got about 40. A serrated knife did not work for this (though Dorie suggests it). I found a big chef’s knife worked better. And as it was, I messed up a bunch of them where the crumb crust came unstuck. I’ve packaged them up in a plastic box and they’re in the refrigerator. Before serving, allow them to warm at room temp for about 15 minutes, Dorie suggests. My cubes were not very uniform – Dorie’s look like they’re cut with precision. It’s a bit hard to do – but that won’t matter to the taste of them.

What’s GOOD: love the flavor of these – the cookies give a different flavor and texture – the crunch in them is wonderful. I liked the corn flakes. All of it is good, and although it’s a no-bake cookie, you’ll still spend a bit of time making this. But it’s not like rolling out Christmas cookies, using a cookie cutter, then baking. I would think children would LOVE these. Haven’t tried them on any yet, but I will.

What’s NOT: nothing other than some time – saying it’s a no-bake cookie just means you don’t have to heat the oven. You’ll still spend a bit of time making them.

printer-friendly PDF and MasterCook 14/15 file (click link to open recipe)

* Exported from MasterCook *

No-Bake Cookie Cubes

Recipe By: Dorie Greenspan, column in Washington Post, 12/2015
Serving Size: 49 (or less)

CRUST:
1 1/4 cups Biscoff cookies — or graham cracker crumbs
6 tablespoons unsalted butter — (3/4 stick) melted
TOPPING:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter — (3/4 stick) cut into 6 pieces
1 cup spice cookie spread — such as Biscoff/Lotus or Speculoos
12 ounces chocolate — preferably semisweet or bittersweet, coarsely chopped (may substitute milk chocolate)
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt — (1/4 to 1/2)
4 cups corn flakes
1/2 cup raisins — or dried cranberries, chopped dried cherries or chopped dried apricots (or a mix of fruits)
1/2 cup slivered almonds — (toasted or plain), shelled pistachios, chopped walnuts or chopped pecans (or a mix of nuts)

1. CRUST: Pulse cookies until fine crumbs, then place in a medium bowl, pour over the melted butter, and, using a fork or your fingertips, mix until the crumbs are moist and evenly coated. Turn out into the 8-inch square pan, then use your fingertips to press and compact the crumbs into a crust. Freeze the crust while you make the topping.
2. TOPPING: Put the butter in a LARGE heavy-bottomed saucepan (such as a 3-to-4-quart pan), then add the cookie spread; finally, add the chocolate and salt (use the lesser amount if you’ll be adding salted nuts) to the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring as the ingredients melt, to form a smooth, glossy mixture. Turn off the heat and stir in the cornflakes, dried fruit and nuts, mixing until all the add-ins are coated with the chocolate mixture.
3. Remove the crust from the freezer; pour the topping over it and use a spatula to spread the topping across the crust, making sure to get it into the corners. Press firmly so the filling sticks to the bottom crust. Refrigerate for 4 hours; you want it to be solid.
4. To unmold, either warm the bottom and sides of the pan with hot air from a hair dryer (Dorie Greenspan’s preferred method) or dip the pan into hot water for about a minute, taking care not to let the water splash onto the chocolate.
5. Place a piece of parchment or wax paper over a rack or cutting board, and have another cutting board at hand. Run a round-edged table knife around the sides of the pan, and turn the pan over onto the paper. If the cookie slab doesn’t drop out of the pan, apply more heat. Once the slab is unmolded, carefully flip it over onto the other cutting board so the crust side is down.
6. It’s easiest to cut the slab into cubes using a long chef’s knife or a serrated slicing knife and a sawing motion. Cut cookie cubes that are roughly 1 inch square by slicing the slab into 7 rows and then cutting each row crosswise into 7 cookies. Store the cubes in the refrigerator or freezer, and allow them to sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes before serving. Biscoff’s are available at most grocery stores. Speculoos butter is available at Trader Joe’s. It resembles peanut butter.
Per Serving (not accurate as I forgot to add nutrition info on the speculoos): 111 Calories; 7g Fat (54.9% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 12g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 8mg Cholesterol; 58mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on December 8th, 2015:

    I have had my eye on this recipe, too. Bought the Biscoff last week, but was planning on using graham crackers for the crust. Now I am wondering–do you think the crust is necessary? You mentioned that it wanted to separate from the rest of the cube. Is the filling part firm enough to hold its shape and be enjoyed on its own?

    I remember when Biscoff spread started appearing in my supermarket, maybe five years ago. At the time, I didn’t think much of the idea. I eat peanut butter for the protein, and I couldn’t see spreading carbs on carbs. However, in the end, I couldn’t resist at least trying it, as I have an insatiable appetite for trying new tastes and textures. It was interesting, but I’ve never bought it again. I avoided spreading it on toast and such, but did enjoy some on apple slices a couple of times. The rest languished in the cupboard until it got old and I threw it out. I’ve seen it used in many applications since then so will find a way to use up any extra somehow this time.

    Hi Donna – well, the filling did separate from the crust on SOME of the pieces I cut. I had a hard time cutting these so they were very precise, but in the long run, I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much if they’re irregularly shaped. Perhaps if they were cut from a frozen state they might be better shaped (I don’t know that, just guessing) but I think cutting them would require a really strong arm.

    The speculoos spread at Trader Joe’s is just about what you need for the filling – there was a tiny bit left in the jar and I gave it to my friend Cherrie who doesn’t really like jam. It’s so funny – you and I have a lot in common – I just can’t imagine (and thought this myself) that why would I spread a carb (cookie) spread on top of toast (carb). We’re on the same page! I’d think children would love it.

    What I will tell you is that everyone – absolutely everyone I’ve served these to (about 10 people so far) have just raved about it and have asked for the recipe. What most everyone says is – wow, these aren’t all that sweet. They really aren’t, and it’s surprising because there is a lot of sweet stuff in them, but maybe the corn flakes help balance the sugar. I don’t know. They are really delicious, though. But in answer to your question, yes, I think the crumb crust is important. Otherwise, you’re going to have a hand full of melting chocolate everywhere you touch the cube. With the crust, you might get away without chocolate on your fingers. Maybe. I think the crumb crust helps balance the sugar too. The Biscoff, although a cookie, must not have as much sugar as some cookies (haven’t checked). So, hope that answers your questions. Let me know what you think! . . . carolyn

  2. hddonna

    said on December 9th, 2015:

    Thanks for the tips. I think I’ll wait until I can get some speculoos cookies for the crust–was just going to use graham crackers, but if I’m going to make it at all, I might as well do it up right! Wish we had a Trader Joe’s closer to home. It takes a bit of planning to get to one, and I’ve already made my Christmas baking run there. But if they don’t have Biscoff, my supermarket does carry more than one brand of windmill cookies, which are a type of speculoos cookie.

    Also, I’d forgotten until reading your post that the recipe called for cornflakes. Glad you mentioned that–I need to get some.

    Do let me know what you think of them . . . carolyn

  3. hddonna

    said on December 24th, 2015:

    I made these a couple days ago, and I’m glad I was forewarned about some of the problems they presented. Unfortunately, that didn’t keep some of the same problems from happening for me. I lined my pan with foil and popped the slab right out of the pan with no heating. Tried the serrated knife, but it didn’t work well for me either. Switched to my old, cheap thin Kiwi knife, which worked fine, and I turned the slab crust up for cutting so the crust wouldn’t crumble. But all the crust fell right off each piece as I picked it up and turned it upright to place it in a container. I did get 7 rows each way, but the result was little towers instead of cubes. I think they are delicious, but messy to eat, as the chocolate melts and the crust crumbles. I’m the only one who’s tasted them so far-whether I make them again depends on how my family likes them. I used dried cherries and pistachios, by the way.

    I have, still, about 10-12 of the cubes left in my refrigerator. And, despite the difficulties I had with them, I absolutely loved these cookies. Next time I’ll try to make the crust more moist (butter?) so it will hold together better. And I think pressing down the chocolate/corn flake mixture into the crust will help keep them together. Mine fell apart also, but I just LOVED them enough that I want to make them again. Not this week, but sometime soon. I’ll have to go research online and see if other people have had trouble. The cubes I cut never looked as pretty as the ones in the newspaper article, so I’m not sure what worked for them. I hope your family enjoys them, Donna! . . . carolyn t

  4. hddonna

    said on December 27th, 2015:

    These went over very well. When my son asked where “those fudgy things” were, I knew I’d be making them again. As for the crust falling off, I have an idea. I noticed that the cubes left out on the cookie tray for a few hours started melding with the crust better. Then it occurred to me that the topping is put onto a frozen crust. I had noticed that the crust was very buttery and moist when I made it. There were actually some very wet spots. But since the crust is frozen before the topping is added, the butter firms up and doesn’t adhere to the topping. Next time, I will freeze it as directed so the topping can be added without messing up the crust, but then I will leave it at room temperature for a while and press down again before chilling the whole thing. I like the taste best when they are at room temperature, so will leave them out longer than fifteen minutes when serving them. Finally, I intend to make them in a 9-inch square pan instead of 8-inch so that a one-inch square will not be taller than it is wide. I had about 6 cookies left from the package when I made the crust, so I think I’ll use the whole package. I don’t think more butter would be necessary, but if they don’t look thoroughly moistened, a bit more could be added before spreading the crumbs. Since I found that my thin, smooth Kiwi brand knife worked best for slicing, I might try heating the knife before cutting so as to get smoother cuts. (The Kiwi looks like a small cleaver but is as thin as a paring knife.)

    Great ideas Donna. Thanks for thinking it through. . . Carolyn t

  5. hddonna

    said on December 29th, 2015:

    Further note on cutting: I just cut one of the cubes in half when it was at room temperature, and the cut was very smooth and straight. Bringing the bars to room temperature before cutting would apparently result in much neater squares!

    Ah, that’s great news, Donna. Thank you! . . . carolyn t

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